Thoughts on (Re)modeling the Future

We had an interesting comment recently from someone who suggested we (and this was a collective we rather than a “we” restricted to myself and Shawn) would do better work by remodeling existing homes than by building new ones, given that there’s such a glut of homes on the market, especially in North America. I say that the answer is... not necessarily.

A neighborhood of remodeled bungalows in Atlanta, Georgia.

A neighborhood of remodeled bungalows in Atlanta, Georgia.

Here’s why.

I’ll say flat out that I’m a big fan of remodeling homes. Shawn and I got our start and basic skill set by remodeling. We couldn’t have owned our first home if it hadn’t been in need of a lot of work, because we simply couldn’t have afforded an expensive newer or older house that was in tip top shape. Plus, we couldn’t have made a house seem more “like ours” outside of building it from the ground up if it hadn’t been for the major remodeling we did to it. Even though we didn’t build our first truly loved home from scratch, we put our hearts and souls into it and it became imbued with our love and fingerprints...a Velveteen Rabbit sort of thing. We both love remodeling and curiously enough, would still love to remodel another house in our future, though we aren’t certain if it’s in the cards.

But I will also say that if we were to remodel, we would want it to be an older home, and by older, I mean a home built prior to 1949. The materials and building styles commonly used at that time tend to be better, in our opinion, than those typically used in more recent history (there are always exceptions to generalizations, of course). Some of the most recent architecture, especially large box like houses, seems like it would be nearly impossible to remodel to me. Curiously, I think this is because I consider remodeling to be both an outdoor and an indoor job. It seems to me that the majority of what fuels design in more cookie cutter style homes is a focus on the interior of a home to the near complete exclusion on the focus of the outdoor facade of a home (and the neighboring homes including the people living in them). You might indeed have as a result a very comfortable and attractive home from the interior view. But the exterior is sort of lifeless and not very personalized. All of us have seen developments where this sort of thing occurs. I don’t really write this to demonize these developments or put them down, but to note that if we focus exclusively on the interior of our homes, we create a problem in terms of exterior aesthetic and I think also reinforce a negative psychology that tends to be overly “indoor” focused. There’s more to life, especially the social lives we hopefully share with one another, than a life that is spent mostly indoors and in front of a television. I think that a lot of modern design encourages an overly indoor lifestyle that compels us to remain in the tv room rather than outside walking, meeting our neighbors, relaxing in the fresh air and gardening or doing other outdoor things, like watching the birds or seeing kids playing together. There are a host of ramifications to this that I won’t get into here.

I guess I realize too that if we were to remodel again, I would want to remodel an older home as well because the older homes (especially bungalow styles) I see in various cities and small towns (like Seattle, Portland, OR or smaller towns like Bellingham, WA or Salem, OR) seem to have an added bonus to them. They are surrounded by other small homes and seem to have a neighborhood character that is very warming and attractive to me personally. The bygone era that they represent is not merely pleasing to the eye (I love the character of these homes even when they are neglected; they bring out a nurturing sense in me that makes me want to do something to restore them) but also to my psychology. I can imagine being out in the yards of these homes because even on tiny city lots, smaller older homes don’t take up the entire lot , which means there’s space left over to sit, garden, play or daydream in. To me, this is attractive and life sustaining. It can be very difficult to find building lots in established urban areas, whether they are large or small urban centers, so remodeling and restoring these homes is definitely high on my list of laudable acts. There are many times that Shawn and I wonder if perhaps that might be possible for us to do together again someday, and that’s despite the fact that we love to build together.

I wonder if it will be possible to start building homes on a “neighborhood” basis that might replicate more closely the beautiful old neighborhoods that are a part, somewhere, of many cities across the country. Perhaps the future will hold a chance for generations down the line to remodel well built, character rich homes in cities and towns across the country. I’d like to imagine something like that happening. That’s part of the reason that I don’t think it always makes sense to remodel existing homes rather than build new ones. Sometimes, people building new really IS better. The builder can choose a style that they love and that reflects something personal to them. They can choose to use good materials that will stand the test of time. They can build something that will delight people decades and even centuries down the line. Yes, I think even in a world that is increasingly beset by shortages of material it can sometimes be best served by starting from scratch. Some of the building that has taken place over the years has just been a big mistake. I think that a certain level of conservation simply occurs by people taking matters into their own hands and building something that will last. It can be done and really should be done. And I hope that it will be.

There’s one more reason that I think building from scratch can be a better option than remodeling. That has to do with expense, funny enough. Depending on your personal skill set and the area of the country that you live, it may in fact be less expensive to build from scratch. A lot of remodel jobs with great potential may have already been done where you live. Seattle is a great example of this. There are lots of adorable bungalows in this city, and most of them have been purchased and fixed up already. There’s not a whole lot of work left to be done on them and their cost reflects that. Granted, in an urban setting like this, there’s also a lack of available building lots, so bear with me on this. I do realize this. But there are places where you can actually build from scratch for far less money than it would cost to buy a fixer upper. As in most things, individual circumstances will dictate particulars, but this is just food for thought and part of why, for our circumstances, building is often a more sensible option than remodeling.

I do hope and intend, though, that our buildings will stand the test of time and will be homes that many decades from now would be well worth remodeling to someone, should they ever fall into disrepair, which I hope they do not! That, however, is the very finest compliment a builder, designer or someone otherwise involved in building could ever receive. If this sensation remains primary in the minds of people anywhere who are undertaking a building project, I don’t think there’s much cause to feel guilty about starting from scratch.